Tuesday, 8 December 2009

May 2009

After two demo sessions that managed to capture rough takes of almost forty songs, Shin Jin Rui began tracking their second album on the 4th. A hot Monday bank holiday, my initial problem was making sure the fan didn’t interfere with the high hat mic. The guys were recording live, and as the day wore on we honed the bass tone on James’ Trace Elliot amp to perfection, boxing it into a corner of the room with other amps to achieve the most amount of isolation, boosting the treble on the EQ and a Fender Precision for ultimate bite. In short, the exact same technique Brian perfected on the Future Loss stuff several weeks prior. The band are slow to start, but by the end of the session they’re nailing song after song virtually first or second take. We take time over certain guitar settings on Adam’s Fender valve amp, and he makes good use of the borrowed Rickenbacker. Imagine my despair when I got home and found that the Mac, in a sole incident of inconsistency, had eaten half the session. Hours were spent trawling the hard drives with specialist software, but the audio had only been cached before the machine had unexpectedly crashed, thus losing almost an hour’s worth of recording. Arrange pages filled with blank, mute wave files. Horrible. The band and I duly schedule more sessions for later in the month. I consider tattooing “File & Save” into my wrist, and have a real crisis of professional confidence.

In the middle of the week I visited Thomas Hepburn Community School in Gateshead to record some overdubs for the Milky Wimpshake project. I had suggested to Pete to add piano to Itchy Feet, a song that owed much to that mid-Sixties songwriting period McCartney went through, where all the melodies were vertical and bright. As head of music at the school, Pete had the luxury of using his baby grand piano for the song; the first time I had worked with such an instrument. In the end I opted for the mic to be placed facing the diagonal lid, rather than directly over the strings, thus capturing more of the resonance of the casing instead of just the string sounds. Pete played the bass and treble parts separately, allowing me to get the mic aligned with the relevant area of the scale. The finished mix of the song would later drop out the rhythm guitar completely to expose the piano part as the main instrument, giving it the striking arrangement the song deserved.

The second song to be featured at this session was Lorraine, which for some bizarre reason had made me think xylophone might work with it. Pete took some time rummaging through the various boxes of broken musical gear in his store to cobble together a scale that fitted the song.

It was also during this time that the mixing of Bruised Pilgrim’s debut was started in earnest. The quality of the recordings was a mixed bag: on one hand the kit sounded quite weak, on the other the guitars were nice and thick. The bass was very spiky and prone to clipping, while on one particular track the high hat mic had ceased to function meaning I had to grab as much spill from the snare mics as possible. The room we recorded in was very bright, which actually meant the ambient mics at the back of the hall were unnecessary since the dynamic ones captured some of the room anyway.

The biggest challenge with the Pilgrim album was making things clear and distinct. So often the settings, sounds and instruments would shift in focus several times during a song, requiring a treatment that could adapt to each change without sounding uneven. To do this I employed extensive amounts of automation to vary everything from volume, to EQ settings, to bus send amounts, to delay trails as each song progressed. It also marked the first time I used gating aggressively; both kick and snare feeds were clipped ruthlessly to make them as crisp as possible, and minimise ambient snare rattle inbetween beats. There was also a breakthrough on compression settings, where slower attack times on the kit seemed to yield a punchier result.

There was also no denying that this was a heavy, guitar driven record, a genre I hadn’t produced before… and so the guitars had to verge on the metal at times. This meant quite often complementing the existing six string audio with overdrive, distortion and Guitar Amp Pro plug ins on bus channels to give greater weight to certain parts. At other times however, I was amazed at just how little was needed to polish the guitars: both Ian and Grilly had many of their sounds down pat in advance of the recording.

Much of the rough mixing I had done prior to May was therefore scrapped in favour of these revised techniques, along with quite aggressive multiband compression at the mastering stage. The whole disc was cut well into the red, but I felt it had to if it was to do the energetic, garage-rock performances justice. By far one of the most challenging projects of my career so far; this disc taught me how to use the business end of compressors, gates and mastering tools to wring the most power from the raw audio. I seem to remember getting very obsessed by this record near the end: having my first gin at half eleven in the morning, staying up until 7am, sending Grilly emails in nothing but BLOCK CAPITALS, making endless notes on the whiteboard about certain frequency bands that seemed beyond the reach of the multiband compressor, removing the peaks in Sam’s Rickenbacker bass by hand… but I believe it was worth it, as it demonstrates a band at its most quirky and vital without losing too much to its lo-fi environs.

There was a traumatic return to the Star & Shadow sound desk on Saturday 22nd May, for the Narc. Fest gig that was linked with numerous other shows throughout the Ouseburn. One of my own PA speakers blew this time, I suspect because of the faulty amps that belong to the cinema. I also had serious feedback problems during The Cornshed Sisters’ set, and vowed to never be a soundman for hire ever again. The Warm Digits however, were fantastic. Employing their new inner ear monitoring system, the drums were tighter than ever before and I was sure to heed their request to keep the synth as loud as the guitar, giving their show a truly psychedelic edge that made them stand out a mile. Nathalie Stern also played an excellent set, and there was loose talk of me helping her mix and master her album at some stage later in the year; something I would love to do especially since Lake Me split before I could do a session with them.

My diary informs me that it was also around this time that the dead horse of My Attorney was kick started once more, this time with the talents of Ian Leaf and Stuart Stone in the rhythm section. New songs written during this time included Donor, Dinosaurs and Sky, Sky, Sky prompting a new list in my notebook entitled “MA LP4”.